On a day that looked like it would belong to one of golf’s biggest stars, a 22-year-old PGA Tour rookie named Derek Ernst walked away with the Wells Fargo Championship winner’s trophy Sunday.
Ernst, who was in college at Nevada-Las Vegas a year ago and only made the tournament as an alternate, beat journeyman David Lynn on the first playoff hole to cap a rainy, chilly day that began for the players just after the sun came up at Quail Hollow Club.
Winning was the last thing on Ernst’s mind.
“Never, really, at all,” Ernst said of how often that thought occurred to him Sunday. “I just stuck to my game. If I win, great. If I (finish) 10th, great.”
The unlikely appearance of Ernst and Lynn in the playoff was even more surprising, given that superstar Phil Mickelson had appeared until the 16th hole to be positioning himself for his first victory at Quail Hollow.
Mickelson led for much of the day, but never by more than one stroke. Finally, bogeys at Nos. 16 and 17 doomed him to a third-place finish, 1 over for the day and 7 under for the tournament.
“I’m pretty bummed out,” said Mickelson. “I thought this was one I had in control.”
Ernst and Lynn were already in the clubhouse, each with an 8-under 280, by the time Mickelson, who was playing in the final group and needed a birdie on No. 18 to be included in the playoff, had finished.
Ernst, who started the day two strokes behind Mickelson and Nick Watney, made a 4-foot putt for birdie on the 18th to get to 8 under. Lynn’s chip-in from 68 feet for birdie on No. 16 got him there.
Ernst and Lynn were on the putting green when Mickelson missed his putt for birdie on No. 18. They had played in the same group, but didn’t know each other before Sunday.
“I’d never heard of him,” said Lynn, who led the Masters for a while in April and finished second in last year’s PGA Championship.
On the first playoff hole, Lynn’s drive off the 18th tee sailed left and nearly rolled into the creek that lines the fairway. Ernst’s sailed right down the middle. Lynn’s second shot found a bunker on the right side of the green and he got into more trouble when his third shot rolled to the other side of the green. That enabled Ernst to two-putt for his first win as a pro.
Ernst was ranked 1,207th in the world when he was driving to Athens, Ga., last Monday to play in a Web.com tournament. He redirected to Charlotte when he received a phone call telling him Mark Wilson had withdrawn from the Wells Fargo and, as the fourth alternate, Ernst had a spot in the field.
He played well in Thursday’s first round, tying for the lead with four others. He never strayed far from the lead over the next two days and was two strokes behind Mickelson and Watney entering the final round.
Mickelson spent much of Sunday fending off challenges from players such as Watney, one of his playing partners who fell by the wayside with two bogeys on the front nine. Lee Westwood (72) and Ryan Moore (73) also were briefly tied with Mickelson.
So things looked promising for Mickelson as he stood in a green-side bunker after hitting his second shot on the par-5 15th. He couldn’t capitalize and took a 5 before giving it all away with bogeys on the 16th and 17th holes.
“If I could have gotten that bunker shot up and down on 15, I would have had a two-shot lead heading into those last three holes,” Mickelson said. “It would have been nice to have that.”
It won’t go down as the most esthetically pleasing of the 11 Wells Fargo tournaments now in the books. Quail Hollow’s worn-out greens received lots of attention. Rain was a factor much of the weekend, forcing the early start Sunday. The 8-unders posted by Ernst and Lynn were the highest winning scores in tournament history.
Ernst won $1.2 million with the victory. Before Sunday, his biggest payday as a pro was $20,000 from finishing tied for 41st at the Frys.com Open last October.
His Quail Hollow triumph also earned a two-year exemption to the PGA Tour and a spot in next year’s Masters.
“The money is money, it will come and go,” said Ernst, whose most recent tournament victory came at UNLV in the Arizona State Thunderbird Invitational in April 2012. “But winning and having a job and playing out here for the next two years, that’s what I want to do. That is the best part.”
As Ernst stood on the 18th green and did several interviews, his mother Dawn stood to the side, beaming with pride through the rain drops.
When he was in the second grade, he was nearly blinded when a shard of PVC pipe cut his right eye as he was making Dawn a present for Valentine’s Day.
The cut to his eye required 10 stitches, and Ernst still has blurry vision out of it.
“That was scary, but he’s compensated for it and been able to play sports like baseball and golf,” said Dawn, who added that Derek was unable to finish making the present.
Now, her son has won one of the PGA Tour’s most prestigious tournaments, which is probably a pretty good replacement gift for the one she never got during that Valentine’s Day scare about 15 years ago.
“It’s overwhelming,” she said. “And a little surreal.”
Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14